December 16, 2011

Blurred “End” To America’s War In Iraq

Where does one begin to address the “end” of America’s second invasion of Iraq? Do you start with a false pretext of war, the 100,000+ civilians killed over nine years, or the lingering insurgency of a traumatic occupation? With the fact that America’s 1990 blitzkrieg lasted 100 hours, and its 2003 invasion dragged on for 3190 days (give or take a few)? Or should the “formal end” speak for itself?

America’s mission is concluding in a manner befitting of protracted warfare: with a series of open-ended political statements.

“As we mark the end of this war, we need to show our veterans and their families that they have the thanks of a grateful nation,” President Obama declared at Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina. “Part of ending a war responsibly is standing by those who have fought it. It's not enough to honor our heroes with words; we must do so with deeds.”

He will also “end the war responsibly” around New Years, when the last of America’s 4,000 combat troops exist the country.

A treaty will expire on December 31st, but no new treaty between Washington and Baghdad will be finalized. None of America’s enemies in Iraq or operating on its periphery will surrender. Confident of Iraq’s future, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta recognized the “end” of America’s mission “in a fortified concrete courtyard at the Baghdad airport as helicopters hovered above.” The low-key event followed the trend of Iraq’s transitional ceremonies. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the military in Iraq, explained that public ceremonies began to draw insurgent fire over the summer, “so we stopped.”

The “end” of America’s mission in Iraq nears its muddled beginning. Under the Pentagon’s own headline - Panetta, Dempsey to Mark End of Iraq Mission - the Defense Secretary remarked, “This is not the end. This is truly the beginning.”

“This is not the end,” added one senior defense official traveling with Panetta.

Obama also declared a “formal end” to combat operations in August 2010, only for U.S. troops to continue to suffer casualties in the field and on base. Hundreds of Iraqi security personnel and well over a thousand civilians have died in the ensuing 15 months. A parallel scenario is now unfolding: a “new beginning” for Iraq’s people and security forces, and the formal escalation of Washington’s soft power. An estimated 150 Marines, 5,000 security contractors and 4,000 general contractors will remain in Iraq to protect the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, along with smaller installations around the country.

Panetta told reporters, “This will be an historic moment where we basically enter a new chapter in Iraq in which we deal with them in a way that represents the kind of normal relationship we have with other countries.”

A client country, in another words.

Although the war’s past must be examined on a level deeper than U.S. officials are currently willing to tolerate, Iraq’s future doesn’t appear to be completely shrouded in gloom. Democracies need time to grow and the majority of Iraqis are eager to participate non-violently. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the departing American commander in Iraq, warned in a post-ceremony interview, “From a standpoint of being able to defend against an external threat, they [Iraqi forces] have very limited to little capability, quite frankly.”

However the threat of external attack also appears low; a double-edged sword, political and military proxies maintain sufficient influence for Tehran.

Iraq isn’t headed for the chaos that South Vietnam slide into between 1973 and 1975. Unfortunately many Iraqis still lack confidence in Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which remains fractured due to the high strain surrounding his coalition. The American embassy could become the main target of every Iraqi insurgent, but the more imminent danger will stem from a large-scale political conflagration. The next 10 years stand a low chance of reaching Panetta’s vision: “The Iraqi army and police have been rebuilt. Violence levels are down, al-Qaida weakened, rule of law strengthened, educational opportunities expanded and economic growth expanding.”

Aside from the decrease in sectarian violence, Iraq remains politically divided at the highest levels (al-Maliki vs. Ayad Allwai) and its security forces are facing a decade’s worth of hard training (the insurgency may turn out to be good experience). Some Iraqis reportedly doubt America’s exit, and many appear to resent Washington’s cautious optimism. Muqtada al-Sadr will take credit when the last U.S. troops do withdraw and could receive a boost for helping uphold a firm deadline. The Shia cleric suffered defectors after retreating to Iran and ordering his militia to lay low until December 31st, but now he can return to act as he sees fit.

Some political and military figures considered Iraq to be the Pentagon’s “school of COIN,” while others view Iraq as COIN’s graveyard. Pure counterinsurgency was never applied in Iraq, starting with the irrevocable error of false pretext. The Pentagon’s COIN arguably peaked during the 2007-08 surge, due to the extensive political factors that walked Shias and Sunnis back from civil war. This mindset then regressed once Afghanistan’s surge kicked into high gear; Iraqi officials accused the Obama administration of “checking out,” Maliki obstructed funding for Sunni groups and Sadr reemerged as one of Iraq’s most powerful Shia personalities.

Now isn’t the time for conclusive analysis or “final thoughts” on Iraq’s war. Obama and Panetta agree for the wrong reason, speaking with minimal self-reflection on the war’s past. For now all that needs to be said comes out of Panetta’s mouth: “We will continue to have a robust and enduring military presence across the Middle East.”


  1. The way I see this, there are several things that stand out. One is that this finalized withdrawal in many ways is the equivalent of America's departure from South Vietnam in 1973. That is, even though the combat and support units left Saigon, America still had a small contingent in the RVN--until the RVN collapsed in 1975, that is.

    Secondly, as for Iraq being the "school of COIN," or conversely, counterinsurgency's "graveyard," as you point out, Iraq was never the ideal laboratory for the application of COIN. Speaking of which, the fact that the United States is looking to gradually draw down in Af-Pak bespeaks of the fact that the United States had its fill with protracted COIN operations and campaigns. This is due in no small measure to the fact that the American public and policymakers can no longer stomach further American casualties--notwithstanding the fact that the total number of those KIA in both Iraq and Af-Pak have never exceeded 10,000 COMBINED! Also the economic zeitgeist may be such that Obama or whosoever succceeeds him may not have the wherewithal to pay for protracted COIN campaigns.

    And the list goes on. Among them, the fact that HN forces in both countries cannot operate independently above battalion-level and above.

  2. This is the world of asymmetric warfare, and many counterinsurgency observers since the 1960s have isolated an insurgency's beginning as the decisive point (due to its weakness). Otherwise the mission trends toward constant reaction.

    I also expect U.S. and NATO forces to leave Afghanistan in a less stable political and military situation than Iraq. Of the two, Afghanistan's government is the only one facing organized resistance, although I'm not waiting for either capital to fall.